April 24, 2016 – The 5th Sunday of Easter
© 2016 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
To start the sermon this morning, I’d like to play a little game of musical fill-in-the-blank. Help me out here, ok?
First one: “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible ________________.” (tells me so)
Second one: “If you’re happy and you know it, _________________.” (clap your hands)
Last one—slightly harder: “And they’ll know we are Christians ______________.” (by our love)
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love. We know that song. We know that refrain. We might not know that Peter Scholtes wrote that song when he was serving as a parish priest on the southside of Chicago in the 1960s and needed a song to capture the spirit of the ecumenical and interracial work that he and his youth choir were a part of. And we might even forget that it is a response to John 13, when Jesus says to his disciples, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” But we remember those words: they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
But what are Christians known for today? Is it love? When the non-Christian world hears about us, thinks about us, sees us on television, and reads about us in the news, what do they see and hear and read? How are we known? Is it by our love, or are we known by something else? I don’t think it is love. I think that the Christian movement has lost its focus on love and on Jesus as the one who taught us to love. And, until we get it back, I think that the church will continue to slide off into cultural irrelevancy because love, after all, is what the world needs now.
There’s an organization called the Barna Group that for thirty years has been doing research on faith and culture and how the two intersect. Their website has hundreds of studies that they have done about religion and politics and evangelism, and there are two of those studies that really interest me. The first is about millennials and going to church, and the second is about what young non-Christians think about Christianity.
Millennials comprise that generation that became adults around or after the year 2000, which mean that they are the 25-35-year-olds that every church wants in its pews. Last year, the Barna Group did a survey of millennials and found that 30% believe that going to church isn’t at all important and another 30% believe that going to church is very important and that other 40% is somewhere in between. That’s not too surprising, but consider this. Of the 30% who don’t think church attendance is at all important, 39% say that it’s because they find God somewhere else. Even worse, 20% say that they don’t go to church because God is missing from churches altogether. Consider, on the other hand, that of those who think church attendance is very important 22% say that the reason they go to church is because the bible tells them that they should. No wonder the 20% of non-church-goers think that God is missing from churches—because 22% of those who do go think the best reason for going is because some ancient book says the should. Can’t we do better than that? Does it surprise you, then, that among all millennials—Christians and non-Christians—that, when presented with four different images depicting aspects of Christianity, a majority picked the two negative images—a finger being pointed at the viewer and a man with a bullhorn—than the two positive images—a man reaching out to help someone in need and a congregation in the middle of worship?
Nine years ago, the Barna Group did a survey of 16-to-29-year-old non-Christians and found some startling perceptions of Christianity among them. Among the twelve most popular reported perceptions, nine were negative—87% said “judgmental,” 85% said “hypocritical,” 78% said “old-fashioned,” 75% said “too involved in politics.” Even among young Christians, “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too political” were labels chosen by more than half of the respondents. Where is “loving” on that list? That was nine years ago, but has anything changed in the last decade?
I am grateful to organizations like the Barna Group and the Pew Research Center for their work, which gives church leaders data to incorporate into their strategic planning, but do we really need a survey to tell us that the world thinks of Christians as a bunch of judgmental hypocrites? When news reports on Christianity are dominated by sex abuse scandals and televangelists lining their pockets and hateful demonstrators from Westboro Baptist Church and denominations fighting over human sexuality, are we surprised that the world wants to change the channel? That’s why Pope Francis is so popular: you don’t have to be Catholic to think mercy is a good idea; you don’t have to be a Christian to fall in love with radical forgiveness. If we want the world to be excited about what it is that we are doing, we need to remember how to love each other.
We must return to love. We must be about love. To borrow from W. H. Auden, who wrote on the occasion of the outbreak of WWII, “We must love one another or die.” Jesus said to his followers, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” It sounds easy enough, but it’s deceptively difficult. By “love,” Jesus didn’t mean “get along with one another” or “enjoy one another’s company.” Jesus meant agape—true, total, selfless love. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another,” he said. Just as I have loved you? With a love that has no limit? With a love that is willing to die? That must be the love that we have for one another. How will the world know that we are Jesus’ disciples? When we love each other with the same selfless love that he has for the world.
Jesus didn’t come to earth to start an organization. What we do on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights isn’t what he had in mind. He came to earth to love and to teach us how to love. So put down right or wrong. Let go of winners and losers. You can’t argue someone into loving you, just like you can’t beat someone into heaven. Just love. If we are going to be true followers of Jesus, we must love each other just as he loves us. We must be known to the world by our love.
 “What Millennials Want When They Visit Church.” March 4, 2015. The Barna Group. https://www.barna.org/barna-update/millennials/711-what-millennials-want-when-they-visit-church.
 “A New Generation Expressions Its Skepticism and Frustration with Christianity.” September 21, 2007. The Barna Group. https://www.barna.org/barna-update/millennials/94-a-new-generation-expresses-its-skepticism-and-frustration-with-christianity.
 “September 1, 1939.” W. H. Auden. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/september-1-1939.